When Cherokee Road resident Ingrid Easter moved to Hendersonville a little more than two decades ago, she’d occasionally see one or two deer grazing on the perimeters of her yard.
Today, it’s not uncommon for her to look out back and see more than a dozen deer almost daily.
“I counted 21 in my back yard the other day,” she said. “Many times, they’re just 10 feet from my back door. They’ve eaten nearly everything in our yard. I honestly think if I left our door open, they would walk right into my house and help themselves to the food in our kitchen.”
Easter says she’s concerned the overpopulation is hurting the deer as well.
She tells of when a deer was hit by a car in front of her house in November and how it suffered for three hours before police officers arrived to shoot it.
“As much as they are annoying, it was heartbreaking to see it lay there suffering while waiting to be put out of its misery,” she said.
Ward 4 Alderman Karen Dixon says Easter isn’t alone in her concerns. Dixon, who was elected to her first term in November, said the city’s deer population came up often while campaigning door-to-door.
“We now have huge herds roaming our neighborhoods,” she said.
She and a few other aldermen have asked Mayor Jamie Clary to reconvene the city’s Deer Monitoring and Control Committee to explore the issue.
“I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” Dixon noted. “But we can certainly educate both peninsulas on what we’ve learned in the past, what the USDA recommended for our city, and what the studies concluded.”
Legislation allows for a controlled hunt
The city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to implement a program to control the city’s urban deer herd in February of 2015. As part of the program, USDA-certified deer management personnel would be allowed to remove deer through sharpshooting techniques.
Prior to the implementation of a cull, a survey would be conducted and a target number of deer to be removed would be set. Harvested deer would be given to local food banks and a second survey would be conducted after the culling. According to the legislation, a controlled hunt would only take place if BOMA voted to appropriate the money for it. So far, they haven’t.
The plan also established a seven-member deer committee to monitor the city’s urban deer herd and to educate the public about ways to deter or repel deer as well as the dangers of human-deer interaction.
After the legislation passed, the USDA conducted an aerial survey of the 45 square miles within the city limits. Held on March 21, 2015 and April 11, 2015, the survey found 436 deer. A general rule of thumb for estimating populations from aerial surveys is to double the number of animals observed. The city’s deer population was estimated to be at least 872 deer, or 19.4 deer per square mile.
City leaders were told by USDA officials that the number didn’t warrant a cull, and that the city should consider implementing a ban on feeding deer.
In 2016, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen passed an ordinance prohibiting the intentional feeding of deer within the city limits. The ordinance expired Dec. 31, 2017 with Hendersonville police having issued no citations.
In January of 2018, the city contracted with the USDA’s Wildlife Services division to conduct another deer survey.
The department conducted aerial and road surveys on Jan. 3, 4 and 10, 2018. During the aerial surveys, 42 and 44 deer were observed on consecutive days, while 38 deer were observed during the road survey, according to a report submitted to the city at the time. Following the guidelines, the population estimate for the city of Hendersonville was at least 83 deer, or 1.8 deer/square mile.
Several aldermen as well as members of the deer committee, questioned how the deer population could have dropped so dramatically. Again, the USDA recommended a ban on deer feeding, and said the numbers didn’t warrant their intervention.
In July of 2018 board members again passed an ordinance that prohibits residents from intentionally feeding deer within the city limits, this time with no ending date.
Deer Committee will reconvene
Clary said residents continue to complain about the deer eating their flowers and shrubs and there’s growing concern about dangerous interactions like car accidents and disease.
According to the Hendersonville Police Department, there were 46 deer-related crashes in 2019 and 36 incidents in 2018. Many believe the number of deer-related accidents that don’t involve local police is much higher.
“I’ve asked the deer committee to reconvene and give some guidance to BOMA about what can be done,” said Clary.
As chairman of the committee since its inception, local realtor Oliver Barry says he’s fielded dozens of calls over the years from concerned residents.
Barry says the seven-member committee comprised of citizens appointed by BOMA will reconvene within the next few weeks, but he’s not optimistic it will reach any new conclusions.
While a controlled hunt is part of the city’s legislation, Barry isn’t convinced it would ever happen. Both the committee and the city were divided on the idea several years ago, and Barry says he’s not sure that’s changed.
“One guy wanted to kill them all, another wanted to leave them alone,” Barry said. The extremes, he noted, seem to reflect the community at large.
“I guarantee if we did a survey, we would have 50 percent say leave the deer alone and 50 percent would say we really need to do something about this.”
In addition, Barry said USDA officials have told him the numbers aren’t there to warrant a cull.
“We’re not at a tipping point,” he said. “We’re not overwhelmed by deer according to the TWRA and the USDA.”
But Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Regional Wildlife Manager Russ Skoglund isn’t so sure.
Although by state statute the TWRA is responsible for the management of deer across the state, the agency can’t dictate how municipalities address the issue, said Skoglund.
“It’s frustrating sometimes from our standpoint,” he added.
Skoglund worked closely with deer committee members and city staff before BOMA passed the 2015 legislation.
“Hendersonville is one of the few cities that has a legitimate deer management plan,” said Skoglund. “The original plan was a good plan, a valid plan. And you know that the population hasn’t decreased since then. Even if it has remained the same, if you’ve had growth or construction, the deer have moved to smaller areas.”
Skoglund suggests surveying the areas where deer are concentrated rather than the whole city.
“The figure they came up with was based on total square miles in Hendersonville,” he said. “The problem is the number of deer is concentrated in a much smaller area. What somebody needs to do is go to the county planner and ask how much of that 45 square miles is suitable habitat (or green space). That at least doubles the number of deer in a suitable habitat.”
Skoglund says the TWRA doesn’t have the manpower or equipment to conduct an aerial survey, but that the agency could possibly conduct a road survey.
He also said the city could look into contracting with a company that specializes in “animal damage control” other than the USDA. The TWRA would work with the company on getting the needed permits to conduct a cull, Skoglund said.
“The only way to solve the problem is to reduce the size of the herd – primarily females,” he said.
However, like Barry, Skoglund realizes the idea of a cull is a political hot potato.
“Half the people feed the deer, the other half want to get rid of them,” he mused. “That’s been the problem with geese on Old Hickory Lake since I can remember… but sometimes you have to go against the grain for the betterment of society.”
Still, Skoglund says there are other ways the city can manage the problem.
He’s suggested the city educate the public about the fact that they can apply to the TWRA for a depredation permit that allows them to hunt deer on their own property even if city law prohibits it.
He’s also shared brochures that detail what plants deer will and won’t eat as well as ways to repel them.
Barry agrees the committee needs to do a better job of educating the public. While the committee voted years ago to put information on the city’s website about the dangers of feeding deer and what measures residents could take to repel them, it never got done, Barry said.
He also thinks the city should begin enforcing its no-deer-feeding ordinance.
“Enforcing the deer feeding ordinance is probably the best way to deal with the over population at this point,” said Barry.
Dixon says that educating the public would be a good start.
“I want to move forward even if it’s baby steps because the citizens are asking for it and we need to do that,” she said.